Some of the perks that come with being the officially licensed Major League Baseball card maker is that you get to make a big deal out of it when the new season’s first cards are released. A talk show host throws out the first box in a rite of spring late winter. Collectors blog and post and tweet as soon as there’s a blaster box sighting. You get to hold a big publicity event in a spring training city. Dealers and would be profiteers bust a seemingly endless supply of cases. Collectors analyze the inserts.
On Wednesday, one of those bloggers made an observation that was tailor-made for the new, 60-minute news cycle. Writing for Chicagoside, a sports blog inside the Sun-Times, Rob Harris—a collector—noted that Topps doesn't mention Pete Rose in its small and rather silly ‘chase’ blurbs that are printed on the back of each card. While a player might be within 350 homers of Barry Bonds would be mentioned by name, a player within a few thousand hits of Rose was just said to be “away from the all-time record of 4,256.”
Within hours of the post showing up online, it was picked up by other mainstream media outlets hungry for a story that had some sizzle. “Topps banned Pete Rose, too?!” they screamed.
By late Wednesday, the Rose/Topps story was the third most popular search on Yahoo.com.
It made for great social media/commenter bait. Sure enough, every story that appeared had the usual throng of outraged non-collecting fans shouting that “baseball cards are dead anyway” and “how stupid it is that suspected steroid users are OK but not the all-time hit king”. Most, it's safe to assume, never read the entire story or did any research afterward if they did. It’s sort of the modern media game of ‘round up the usual suspects’ that is completely out of control and makes us as a society look really, really dumb.
Rose, of course, is banned for life because of his association with gambling. He can’t appear on licensed MLB products—and with the exception of an occasional cartoon--hasn’t for more than 20 years. That’s not Topps’ call. The ball remains in Bud Selig’s court. Beckett’s Chris Olds dusted off a nine-year-old story he’d written on that very topic, but by that time it was a guerilla war against media Goliaths and their followers who were all lobbing atomic warheads at Topps.
Some collectors took to Twitter and one even created a "2013 Topps Pete Rose" (see left).
The fact that Topps can't or won’t even mention his nameisa little strange. According to Topps' tweets in response to the hubbub, MLB’s product people have told them to treat Pete as if he never existed. Rules are rules, apparently but neither side really likes to talk about this particular situation. Topps didn't issue a proper response to Harris and so the story got bigger legs than it probably should have.
Rose, unfortunately, is treated like the creepy relative whose deeds embarrass the rest of the family. Baseball’s rules for banishment were written long before there were bubble gum cards but the ban is something MLB takes quite seriously.
I don’t know about winners and losers. Topps is the one who apparently is getting 'hosed' here but they probably got more PR out of the saga than they did about the world’s largest baseball card 24 hours earlier. Any pub is good pub when some perceive your industry as struggling to stay relevant.
I do know that if I were Leaf Trading Cards and I made a baseball card set that was entirely about Pete Rose just a few months before, I would have been knee deep in the comments section of all those posts and issuing press releases: “Love Pete Rose? Have we got a card set for you....”